Page 7 of Burmese Days

‘Oh, hardly as bad as that, I trust. Still, I am afraid there is no doubt that the democratic spirit is creeping in, even here.’

‘And such a short time ago, even just before the War, they were so nice and respectful! The way they salaamed when you passed them on the road–it was really quite charming. I remember when we paid our butler only twelve rupees a month, and really that man loved us like a dog. And now they are demanding forty and fifty rupees, and I find that the only way I can even keep a servant is to pay their wages several months in arrears.’

‘The old type of servant is disappearing,’ agreed Mr Macgregor. ‘In my young days, when one’s butler was disrespectful, one sent him along to the jail with a chit saying “Please give the bearer fifteen lashes.” Ah well, eheu fugaces! Those days are gone for ever, I am afraid.’

‘Ah, you’re about right there,’ said Westfield in his gloomy way. ‘This country’ll never be fit to live in again. British Raj is finished if you ask me. Lost Dominion and all that. Time we cleared out of it.’

Whereat there was a murmur of agreement from everyone in the room, even from Flory, notoriously a Bolshie in his opinions, even from young Maxwell, who had been barely three years in the country. No Anglo-Indian will ever deny that India is going to the dogs, or ever has denied it–for India, like Punch, never was what it was.

Ellis had meanwhile unpinned the offending notice from behind Mr Macgregor’s back, and he now held it out to him, saying in his sour way:

‘Here, Macgregor, we’ve read this notice, and we all think this idea of electing a native to the Club is absolute——’ Ellis was going to have said ‘absolute balls’, but he remembered Mrs Lackersteen’s presence and checked himself–‘is absolutely uncalled for. After all, this Club is a place where we come to enjoy ourselves, and we don’t want natives poking about in here. We like to think there’s still one place where we’re free of them. The others all agree with me absolutely.’

He looked round at the others. ‘Hear, hear!’ said Mr Lackersteen gruffly. He knew that his wife would guess that he had been drinking, and he felt that a display of sound sentiment would excuse him.

Mr Macgregor took the notice with a smile. He saw the ‘B F’ pencilled against his name, and privately he thought Ellis’s manner very disrespectful, but he turned the matter off with a joke. He took as great pains to be a good fellow at the Club as he did to keep up his dignity during office hours. ‘I gather,’ he said, ‘that our friend Ellis does not welcome the society of–ah–his Aryan brother?’

‘No, I do not,’ said Ellis tartly. ‘Nor my Mongolian brother. I don’t like niggers, to put it in one word.’

Mr Macgregor stiffened at the word ‘nigger’, which is discountenanced in India. He had no prejudice against Orientals; indeed, he was deeply fond of them. Provided they were given no freedom he thought them the most charming people alive. It always pained him to see them wantonly insulted.

‘Is it quite playing the game,’ he said stiffly, ‘to call these people niggers–a term they very naturally resent–when they are obviously nothing of the kind? The Burmese are Mongolians, the Indians are Aryans or Dravidians, and all of them are quite distinct——’

‘Oh, rot that!’ said Ellis, who was not at all awed by Mr Macgregor’s official status. ‘Call them niggers or Aryans or what you like. What I’m saying is that we don’t want to see any black hides in this Club. If you put it to the vote you’ll find we’re against it to a man–unless Flory wants his dear pal Veraswami,’ he added.

‘Hear, hear!’ repeated Mr Lackersteen. ‘Count on me to blackball the lot of ’em.’

Mr Macgregor pursed his lips whimsically. He was in an awkward position, for the idea of electing a native member was not his own, but had been passed on to him by the Commissioner. However, he disliked making excuses, so he said in a more conciliatory tone:

‘Shall we postpone discussing it till the next general meeting? In the meantime we can give it our mature consideration. And now,’ he added, moving towards the table, ‘who will join me in a little–ah–liquid refreshment?’

The butler was called and the ‘liquid refreshment’ ordered. It was hotter than ever now, and everyone was thirsty. Mr Lackersteen was on the point of ordering a drink when he caught his wife’s eye, shrank up and said sulkily ‘No.’ He sat with his hands on his knees, with a rather pathetic expression, watching Mrs Lackersteen swallow a glass of lemonade with gin in it. Mr Macgregor, though he signed the chit for drinks, drank plain lemonade. Alone of the Europeans in Kyauktada, he kept the rule of not drinking before sunset.

‘It’s all very well,’ grumbled Ellis, with his forearms on the table, fidgeting with his glass. The dispute with Mr Macgregor had made him restless again. ‘It’s all very well, but I stick to what I said. No natives in this Club! It’s by constantly giving way over small things like that that we’ve ruined the Empire. This country’s only rotten with sedition because we’ve been too soft with them. The only possible policy is to treat ’em like the dirt they are. This is a critical moment, and we want every bit of prestige we can get. We’ve got to hang together and say, “We are the masters, and you beggars–” ’ Ellis pressed his small thumb down as though flattening a grub–‘ “you beggars keep your place!” ’

‘Hopeless, old chap,’ said Westfield. ‘Quite hopeless. What can you do with all this red tape tying your hands? Beggars of natives know the law better than we do. Insult you to your face and then run you in the moment you hit ’em. Can’t do anything unless you put your foot down firmly. And how can you, if they haven’t the guts to show fight?’

‘Our burra sahib at Mandalay always said,’ put in Mrs Lackersteen, ‘that in the end we shall simply leave India. Young men will not come out here any longer to work all their lives for insults and ingratitude. We shall just go. When the natives come to us begging us to stay, we shall say, “No, you have had your chance, you wouldn’t take it. Very well, we shall leave you to govern yourselves.” And then, what a lesson that will teach them!’

‘It’s all this law and order that’s done for us,’ said Westfield gloomily. The ruin of the Indian Empire through too much legality was a recurrent theme with Westfield. According to him, nothing save a full-sized rebellion, and the consequent reign of martial law, could save the Empire from decay. ‘All this paper-chewing and chit-passing. Office babus are the real rulers of this country now. Our number’s up. Best thing we can do is to shut up shop and let ’em stew in their own juice.’

‘I don’t agree, I simply don’t agree,’ Ellis said. ‘We could put things right in a month if we chose. It only needs a pennyworth of pluck. Look at Amritsar. Look how they caved in after that. Dyer knew the stuff to give them. Poor old Dyer! That was a dirty job. Those cowards in England have got something to answer for.’

There was a kind of sigh from the others, the same sigh that a gathering of Roman Catholics will give at the mention of Bloody Mary. Even Mr Macgregor, who detested bloodshed and martial law, shook his head at the name of Dyer.

‘Ah, poor man! Sacrificed to the Paget MPs. Well, perhaps they will discover their mistake when it is too late.’

‘My old governor used to tell a story about that,’ said Westfield. ‘There was an old havildar in a native regiment–someone asked him what’d happen if the British left India. The old chap said——’

Flory pushed back his chair and stood up. It must not, it could not–no, it simply should not go on any longer! He must get out of this room quickly, before something happened inside his head and he began to smash the furniture and throw bottles at the pictures. Dull boozing witless porkers! Was it possible that they could go on week after week, year after year, repeating word for word the same evil-minded drivel, like a parody of a fifth-rate story in Blackwood’s? Would none of them ever think of anything new to say? Oh, what a place, what people! What a civilisation is this of ours–this godless civilisation founded on whisky, Blackwood’s and the ‘Bonzo’ pictures! God have mercy on us, for all of us are part of it.